All the Birds in the Sky
Charlie Jane Anders
In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.
—GEORGE DYSON, DARWIN AMONG THE MACHINES
WHEN PATRICIA WAS six years old, she found a wounded bird. The sparrow thrashed on top of a pile of wet red leaves in the crook of two roots, waving its crushed wing. Crying, in a pitch almost too high for Patricia to hear. She looked into the sparrow’s eye, enveloped by a dark stripe, and she saw its fear. Not just fear, but also misery—as if this bird knew it would die soon. Patricia still didn’t understand how the life could just go out of someone’s body forever, but she could tell this bird was fighting against death with everything it had.
Patricia vowed with all her heart to do everything in her power to save this bird. This was what led to Patricia being asked a question with no good answer, which marked her for life.
She scooped up the sparrow with a dry leaf, very gently, and laid it in her red bucket. Rays of the afternoon sun came at the bucket horizontally, bathing the bird in red light so it looked radioactive. The bird was still whipping around, trying to fly with one wing.
“It’s okay,” Patricia told the bird. “I’ve got you. It’s okay.”
Patricia had seen creatures in distress before. Her big sister, Roberta, liked to collect wild animals and play with them. Roberta put frogs into a rusty Cuisinart that their mom had tossed out, and stuck mice into her homemade rocket launcher, to see how far she could shoot them. But this was the first time Patricia looked at a living creature in pain and really saw it, and every time she looked into the bird’s eye she swore harder that this bird was under her protection.
“What’s going on?” asked Roberta, smashing through the branches nearby.
Both girls were pale, with dark brown hair that grew super-straight no matter what you did and nearly button noses. But Patricia was a wild, grubby girl, with a round face, green eyes, and perpetual grass stains on her torn overalls. She was already turning into the girl the other girls wouldn’t sit with, because she was too hyper, made nonsense jokes, and wept when anybody’s balloon (not just her own) got popped. Roberta, meanwhile, had brown eyes, a pointy chin, and absolutely perfect posture when she sat without fidgeting in a grown-up chair and a clean white dress. With both girls, their parents had hoped for a boy and picked out a name in advance. Upon each daughter’s arrival, they’d just stuck an a on the end of the name they already had.
“I found a wounded bird,” Patricia said. “It can’t fly, its wing is ruined.”
“I bet I can make it fly,” Roberta said, and Patricia knew she was talking about her rocket launcher. “Bring it here. I’ll make it fly real good.”
“No!” Patricia’s eyes flooded and she felt short of breath. “You can’t! You can’t!” And then she was running, careening, with the red bucket in one hand. She could hear her sister behind her, smashing branches. She ran faster, back to the house.
Their house had been a spice shop a hundred years ago, and it still smelled of cinnamon and turmeric and saffron and garlic and a little sweat. The perfect hardwood floors had been walked on by visitors from India and China and everywhere, bringing everything spicy in the world. If Patricia closed her eyes and breathed deeply, she could imagine the people unloading wooden foil-lined crates stamped with names of cities like Marrakesh and Bombay. Her parents had read a magazine article about renovating Colonial trade houses and had snapped up this building, and now they were constantly yelling at Patricia not to run indoors or scratch any of the perfect oak furnishings, until their foreheads showed veins. Patricia’s parents were the sort of people who could be in a good mood and angry at almost the same time.
Patricia paused in a small clearing of maples near the back door. “It’s okay,” she told the bird. “I’ll take you home. There’s an old birdcage in the attic. I know where to find it. It’s a nice cage, it has a perch and a swing. I’ll put you in there, I’ll tell my parents. If anything happens to you, I will hold my breath until I faint. I’ll keep you safe. I promise.”
“No,” the bird said. “Please! Don’t lock me up. I would prefer you just kill me now.”
“But,” Patricia said, more startled that the bird was refusing her protection than that he was speaking to her. “I can keep you safe. I can bring you bugs or seeds or whatever.”
“Captivity is worse than death for a bird like me,” the sparrow said. “Listen. You can hear me talking. Right? That means you’re special. Like a witch! Or something. And that means you have a duty to do the right thing. Please.”
“Oh.” This was all a lot for Patricia to take in. She sat down on a particularly large and grumpy tree root, with thick bark that felt a little damp and sort of like sawtooth rocks. She could hear Roberta beating the bushes and the ground with a big Y-shaped stick, over in the next clearing, and she worried about what would happen if Roberta heard them talking. “But,” Patricia said, quieter so that Roberta would not hear. “But your wing is hurt, right, and I need to take care of you. You’re stuck.”
All the Birds in the Sky
Written By: Charlie Jane Anders
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